Why no COVID Relief Bonuses for Meatpacking Workers?

Nebraska is receiving a lot of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. More than $1 billion will be distributed at the Legislature’s choosing. The funding comes with stipulations. The U.S. Department of Treasury says the money can be used for addressing the pandemic’s negative economic impacts. One specific option it lists is premium pay (read: bonuses) for essential workers.

This year, Nebraska legislators have proposed several bills that would give bonus pay to essential workers in health care and education. Rightly so. But it’s unacceptable that some essential workers who were among the first and hardest hit by the pandemic are being left out.

Currently, there is no proposal to provide bonuses to those in food processing and production, such as the workers in our meatpacking plants.

Our position is simple: any legislation that considers premium payments to essential workers must include meatpacking workers, who continued to work through the pandemic, often without adequate safety measures, and ensured Nebraska and the rest of the country still had food on the table. Budget debate began this week and session ends in April, so there’s a short window for the Legislature to get this right.

So far, state action has failed meatpacking workers in far too many ways. Failures of employers, state officials and legislators to ensure safety measures at meatpacking plants led to significant spikes during the pandemic. In fact, a 2020 analysis found nearly half the counties in the U.S. with the highest per-capita infection rates featured an outbreak related to a meatpacking plant.

The lack of worker safety protections already present in meatpacking plants were only exacerbated by the pandemic at grave consequence. Meatpacking workers continued to work elbow-to-elbow on the production lines and packed into crowded locker rooms and cafeterias. Many were only provided one mask, which would become soiled in blood and sweat. Meanwhile, employers would tell the workers that they would be fired if they complained about unsafe conditions and ordered them to continue working even if they felt ill if they wanted to keep their job. Meatpacking workers are unlikely to have full benefits and missing a day of work often means risking losing their employment entirely. Bonus payments would offer a small but meaningful contribution toward increased economic stability, although much more needs to be done.

Including meatpacking workers in bonus payments would also advance racial justice. In allocating funds, it is vital the Legislature recognize the pervasive racial disparities in the impact of the pandemic. While people of color make up no more than 10% of teachers, health care workers, and childcare providers in Nebraska, more than 50% of meatpacking plant workers in Nebraska are immigrants and people of color. Simply put, if the Legislature truly wants to distribute funds to the individuals most impacted by the pandemic, then there is no equation in which meatpacking workers are not included.

Alongside bonus payments, there must be action to increase oversight in meatpacking plants. Most meatpacking workers are immigrants who have been working in conditions that have had little accountability for health and safety during and before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, meatpacking workers were more likely to be subject to dangerous working conditions, harassment and retaliation. Those concerns remain to this day.

This legislative session, Senator Matt Hansen introduced LB871, which proposes to 1) elevate the Meatpacking Industry Workers Rights Coordinator within the Department of Labor to a fulltime position, 2) give the Coordinator increased access to meatpacking plants and 3) increase the Coordinator’s reporting requirements of injuries, worker complaints and language access gaps. Since most meatpacking workers are immigrants who are likely to have limited English proficiency, a proactive full-time Meatpacking Industry Workers Rights Coordinator position is an important measure toward increasing oversight of meatpacking plants and ensuring workers are not subject to harassment, retaliation and dangerous working conditions.

The Meatpacking Industry Workers Rights Coordinator, currently a part-time position, is the sole government representative charged with enforcing the Meatpacking Bill of Rights. The Coordinator is responsible for inspecting and reviewing the practices and procedures of meatpacking plants across the state as related to the Meatpacking Bill of Rights, which are outlined as follows in the Non-English-Speaking Workers Protection Act:

  1. The right to organize;
  2. The right to a safe workplace;
  3. The right to adequate facilities and the opportunity to use them;
  4. The right to complete information;
  5. The right to understand the information provided;
  6. The right to existing state and federal benefits and rights;
  7. The right to be free from discrimination;
  8. The right to continuing training, including training of supervisors;
  9. The right to compensation for work performed; and
  10. The right to seek state help.

Historically, the position has not been consistently filled or been empowered with the resources that are needed to serve meatpacking workers and ensure their safety and health at work. During the start of the pandemic, as thousands of meatpacking workers were contracting COVID-19, hundreds of whom were hospitalized and some of whom tragically died of the virus, the Department of Labor assigned the Meatpacking Industry Workers Rights Coordinator to spend the majority of time processing unemployment claims rather than upholding the rights of meatpacking workers.

Adopting the changes outlined in LB871 would introduce critical oversight to the meatpacking industry and uplift workers’ rights in meatpacking plants, honoring our Meatpacking Bill of Rights. Frustratingly, as of the publishing of this post, LB871 remains locked in the Business and Labor Committee. If LB871 does not advance out of committee, state senators can still decide to fund the Meatpacking Industry Workers Rights Coordinator as a fulltime position with an amendment to their budget.

The bottom line is that budgets are moral documents. They show what and who we value. State senators have a responsibility to ensure that we are sending our COVID-19 relief funds where they are needed most.

We are urging state senators to do the right thing and we hope you’ll join us. Get started by finding your state senator here.